Classical Music

Apollo Chamber Players Journeys To Southeast Asia

Apollo Chamber Players is going to Southeast Asia this weekend.
Apollo Chamber Players is going to Southeast Asia this weekend. Photo by Ben Doyle
Apollo Chamber Players is diving headfirst this weekend into globally-inspired programming and multicultural new music commissions – this time with a focus on the culture and music of Southeast Asia. The group will present a multi-disciplinary performance Mekong: SOUL by Emmy Award-winning musician Van-Anh Vanessa Vo and composer Jonathan Berger to tell three powerful and multi-sensory stories about life on the Mekong River.

The performances are scheduled at 7 p.m. both Friday and Saturday at Asia Society Texas.

Though the music is heavily influenced by Asian instruments and culture, Apollo Chamber Players Founder Matthew Detrick sees many parallels in Mekong: SOUL and Houston.

“Bodies of water sustain and enrich the cultures that surround them. The Mekong River is a body of water that's been important to the cultures of Vietnam, Cambodia and other sections of Southeast Asia,” he explained. “There is a meaningful connection on a larger, grander, macro scale. In Houston's case, this important natural resource helps to breathe life and vitality into what was one swamp land as communities were established on the shores of Buffalo Bayou. Also, the Gulf of Mexico provided a gateway to Houston for immigrants coming from all over the world seeking a better life.”

As an interdisciplinary composition, the performance will blend music, dance and spoken word to create a complete experience.

Through music, the audience will follow a journey along the Mekong River and hear the sounds of Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai, Lao, and Burmese communities. Through choreography, the audience will experience the pains of departure from the homeland, as well as the struggles faced by those torn from the river. Through spoken word and moving images, concert-goers will understand the bonds of the mother who sustains life whether on the river or in diaspora.

For the performance, Van-Anh will perform on the dan bau, a monochord zither native to Vietnam. It is constructed of a long narrow sound box, with a tall curved stem made from water buffalo horn inserted at one end. The single string runs between the sound box and a small wooden gourd attached to the stem. The stem is bent to change the pitch of the string.

“It's more than 1,000 years old, and it's one of the most important traditional instruments of Vietnam. The sound that the dan bau inhabits is equal parts mesmerizing, intoxicating and ethereal. There's also a part of it that's a little bit mysterious and conniving,” Detrick said.

He says the Apollo quartet’s classical western instrument will also mimic some of the traditional Vietnamese ones during parts of the presentation.

“For instance, we will play behind the bridge of the instrument plate and put our bows in a different place to get a different sound that imitates what she's doing. It might emulate something that might be heard in the natural world that she's trying to embody in this piece,” Detrick elaborated. “It's really a completely new world for us from a music and aesthetic standpoint.”

For Apollo Chamber Players’ debut at Asia Society Texas, they’re pulling out all the stops. In addition to the dancers and spoken work, they’re also adding visual elements to enhance the concert experience.

Each member of the string quartet will be stationed on different riser levels to represent the topography of Vietnam in the Mekong Delta area. The performance will also include lighting elements to dial up the drama, and in a first for the players, the members will don specially-designed costumes.
click to enlarge
The sounds of the Mekong River will fill Asia Society Texas this weekend.
Photo by Ben Doyle
Bringing Mekong: SOUL to fruition required a whopping four years. Apollo Chamber Players received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to commission this work, which was set to debut at The Kennedy Center in late 2020 or early 2021…but everyone knows how that went.

The work was put on hiatus, but that provided extra padding to more further develop the concept.

“We're calling this a ‘work in progress’ premiere here in Houston. So that only means that some of the elements that will be a part of this program…some of the more intricate lighting and video elements [we have planned]...won't necessarily be a part of Houston show. The purpose of this Houston run is that maybe we can try out some new things later,” Detrick said.

He added that after the group tries out the program in Houston, Apollo Chamber Players will adjust as needed for the big stage of The Kennedy Center. The world premiere is scheduled for April 7.

It seems the country is catching on to what Detrick and company have built here in Houston and booking the musicians across the country. The quartet is also traveling to Carnegie Hall in March for its 'Apollo MoonShot' concert – the group’s first solo program since debuting there a decade ago.

Apollo Chamber Players presents Mekong: SOUL at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at Asia Society Texas, 1370 Southmore. For tickets or information, visit or $29
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd